IFH 085: Why You Don’t Need a Screenplay to Make a Great Film

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As indie filmmakers, we throw a lot of obstacles on our own path to creating a feature or short film. No obstacle is larger than the almighty screenplay. How many screenwriters and filmmakers do you know that have been working on the movie script for 3, 5, or 7 years? They keep chipping at it in hopes of cracking that nut or it gives them an excuse for not actually making a feature film.

I was no different. One of the biggest things that slowed, if not stopped my filmmaking journey was “the screenplay.” I decided to see if there was a different way to approach making a movie with my first feature film This is Megby creating a very structured story but have a heavy improv element to it.

In doing my research I came to realize that in the last few years, some of my favorite films happen to be (almost) entirely improvised. No structured screenplay. Some were huge tent pole studio movies, Oscar winners (Ironically for best screenplay) and small indie films. It certainly seemed to be a more prolific style among independent filmmakers and I find that it can mean success when they cast the right actors. Especially in the “Mumblecore” and “Dogma 95 indie film movements.

Iron Man had no screenplay?

My favorite “lack of screenplay” story was the Marvel Studios tent-pole, Iron Man. You heard me correctly. The film that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe and that show the world what a great leading  Robert Downey Jr could be. It remains one of the most enjoyable adaptations of a Marvel comic book to date.

iron man, no screenplay, indie film hustle

via Marvel Studios

Take a listen to what Jeff Bridges revealed in a recent interview.

“They had no script, man! They had an outline. We would show up for big scenes every day and we wouldn’t know what we were going to say. We would have to go into our trailer and work on this scene and call up writers on the phone, ‘You got any ideas?’ Meanwhile the crew is tapping their foot on the stage waiting for us to come on.”

Although a story and structure were firmly in place, the dialogue wasn’t – leading to much improvisation on set, which accounts for the film’s energetic, sparky atmosphere.

“I said, ‘Oh, what we’re doing here, we’re making a $200 million student film. We’re all just fuckin’ around! We’re playin’. Oh, great!. That took all the pressure off. Oh, just jam, man, just play. And it turned out great!” Bridges recalled.


Here is a list of film I mention and discuss in detail in the podcast:

Take a listen to why you don’t need a screenplay to make an awesome movie.

Alex Ferrari 2:44
One of the biggest obstacles is the screenplay. The ultimate, most powerful thing is that screenplay as everyone says, but as I've done research, and I discovered that it's not all what it's cracked up to be. Now don't get me wrong. screenplays are extremely important to filmmaking. And understanding story is very, very integral part of making a movie. But there are different methods. And you don't always need a screenplay. And I'm going to list off. Many, many examples of them have projects that you have seen. And you have heard of that you'd be surprised had no screenplay. So this inspired me to do this is Meg in that same way, we're using a outline a very structured outline, and what I found out while doing research, and watching all of these movies in reading every article I can get my hands on and listening to commentary tracks and things like that in interviews with the filmmakers, is that they all have a very specific story they want to tell. So there's a very structured story with scenes, very structured scenes throughout the piece, but the dialogue and a lot of the stuff that happens in the scene is completely improvised. So very Perfect example is that for what we're doing, and this is mag we have a very structured story. So we have a beginning, middle and end, we follow the hero's journey, like any other screenplay would, then within each scene, we have beats, these beats have to be hit in order for the movie to move forward in a proper manner. So we tell the actors, these guys, look, guys, these are the beats that have to happen, how you get to those beats, is up to you, and let's kind of all work together to come up with something, and we start to play and it was so freeing, it's been so freeing so far shooting with these amazing actors. And you have to have amazing actors who are versed in improv. And I've been blessed with amazing cast that has years, sometimes even decades of improvisational skills and experience. So definitely a key part of doing this kind of movie. And if you when you're hiring an actor, you got to make sure if you're going to do this kind of movie, that they are on board with this because a lot of actors love a script, they want to learn their lines, and they want to come in and do their job and not have to think like that just kind of be the actor and not think about the word. So you have to you really have to let them know what's going on and how to do it in, in the in the films in the in the syndicate in the indie film syndicate, I'm going to go into great detail about how we're doing this process, how we're shooting it, what the process is, with the actors, we're going to go in real detail because I think it's something that is a key to freeing a lot of independent filmmakers from the chains of having to write a very detailed multiple script, multiple revisions, seven years doing a screenplay, where you can focus on a wonderful structure, a wonderful story, wonderful stories within the scenes, but let actors and yourself just kind of play with it on the day. And there's a lot of things that kind of like the opening quote said when Mark duplass said is sometimes the dynamic between the actors isn't right, or the scenes not working the way it was written. And if you're not free to kind of go off and play within the moment, it's very difficult to get a good scene. So I'm gonna list off a few things. A few people and a few films that you might have not known were completely if not heavily improvised. Now one person that you think of when when I say the word Stanley Kubrick, most people don't think of the word improvise. Most of the people don't think of, you know, Stanley being a kind of Let's be in the moment kind of director which he wasn't. But with that said, some of his most famous scenes in his movies were improvised. The jack nicholson line. Here's Johnny in the shining, completely improvised the entire dance rape scene from Clockwork Orange, completely improvised. He basically told Rhonda McDowell Do you know a song He's like, yeah, the only song I know is singing in the rain. I'm like, Great, let's do it. And they kind of did it. And that was it. It was completely improvised. I think he did one take of that one or two takes, if I'm not mistaken. The indent in Dr. Strange love and or how I learned how to stop worrying about Worrying and Love the bomb, the entire call to the President. The President calling the Soviet Premier completely improvised, because he had Peter Sellers and Peter Sellers was an amazing, amazing talent. He also had the line I can walk in Dr. Strangelove. But the one that was most impressive to me and Stan Lee's movies is the opening sequence of Full Metal Jacket. That entire like eight minute or 10 minute sequence of the drill instructor introduction was completely improvised. He Stanley had written stuff but when when the actor came in on board, he just came up with stuff so much better that he just let him go. And sometimes you have to be that way with with with not only an actor, but with it as a director. So I just wanted to put that out there and then also in Blade Runner, the entire roof top soliloquy, from Rutger Hauer is completely improvised. One of the most famous scenes in that movie completely improvised. So there are moments like that throughout films, I mean, and I can go I can list off just scenes upon scenes upon scenes. Now, those scenes where those movies were not heavily improvised, but those scenes were completely improvised. I just wanted to use those as a point. One of the movies I found in my research that I could not believe was improvised was a $200 million movie that you've all seen more and like most more than likely is Iron Man. Yes, the Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man, the movie that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe was heavily improvised. And this is straight from Jeff Bridges. In an interview he said, Man, we had no script. I'm going to quote him here. They had an outline, we would show up to the we would show up Big scenes every day, and we wouldn't know what we're going to say. We would have to go into our trailer, work on the scene and call up the writers on the phone. Hey, you got any ideas? Meanwhile, the crew was tapping their foot on the stage waiting for us to come out. And then he said, oh, oh, what we're doing here is we're making a $200 million student film. Oh, we're just fucking around. We're playing around. Okay, great. That takes all the pressure off. Let's just jam man. Let's just play. And man did it turn out great. And quote so can you believe that? A $200 million studio movie was essentially almost entirely improvised by Jeff Bridges by Robert Downey Jr. And that's why that movie works so beautifully. Well, because john Favre just kind of let that go and man that takes some balls and I'm not sure if I have the balls to do that on a you know, $200 million Marvel movie, but at the time, they just kind of did it and that's what happened. They had a very structured story. Obviously, they can't make a movie of that size without it but you see what I'm talking about. They kind of just played around within the scene. So I'm going to list off some movies that you might have might have heard of might not have heard of that are completely improvised, so you guys can take a look at it and I will leave them in the show notes at indie film hustle.com Ford slash 085. You'll have a list of all these movies so you can guys can take a look at them. And a movie that just came out recently called drinking buddies with Olivia Wilde and Jake London, was completely 100% improvised he had a problem. Joe Swanberg had a problem even getting money for the movie, which I think was about I think they got around the half a million dollars to make the movie with Anna Kendrick was also in it and Ron Livingston was as well. And because they couldn't show a script to anybody, they're like, Look, this guy's made 30 movies like this, you know, and he took them a little while to get the money even with Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick and starring, but they got it and the movie came out great. A lot of people really, really liked it. And definitely check out Joe swans Berg's work because just once was one of those directors who has been doing this since 2004 2005. And he's got almost 30 movies under his belt, and all of them have been improvised. So some of them are great. Some of them are not. But at least he got the work done. And he's been growing and growing and growing. And now he's doing much bigger things and now he's doing I think a Netflix series or something along those lines. So definitely check out Joe's weinsberg. Work. The the poster child for this currently in today's world is Mark do Plus, if you guys have not heard the, the Calvary is not coming speech from South by Southwest on how to make a movie for $1,000. I will put that link in the description as well, amazing 45 minutes that every filmmaker should listen to. And his movie puffy chair came out I think in 2004 2005 and completely improvised huge festival hit. And now he still does that kind of work all his movies, he does improvise, he has a structure, he has an outline, and then they just kind of go with it. And it's I can't tell you again, I want to say this probably a few more times in this podcast, I can't explain to you how freeing it is as a director as a creative as an artist to just not have the pressure of the script. And just kind of go with what happens in the day. Now again, it just works for me and it might not work for you. But that's and it's obviously works for a lot of people and I'm gonna continue to list off a few more movies that you might have not heard of. A big studio movie from Sony was this is the end, the Seth Rogen movie, and that whole crew and that was about 85% improvised. So that was a big studio movie that they basically just had fun and improvise now they had an amazing cast that was verse to do that. But I just still can't believe that big, big studio movies. This happens. Another one of my favorite movies in the indie world is your sister Sister, with Mark duplass and Emily Blunt. And it was directed by another amazing director. Her name is Lynn Shelton. Definitely look up Lynn Shelton's work. She's done a bunch of movies like this hump day, among other movies, and she's a TV director as well. So she comes in and out from indies to TV. And she does a lot of improv, improvisational stuff in her movies as well at a high quality so definitely check that check her out as well. Now, a very famous one from 1999 Blair Witch, The Blair Witch Project 100% improvise, they basically just threw a bunch of actors into the forest and threw stuff at them and they recorded themselves. So that's the extreme to this. It's really pretty crazy. But again, 100% improvised, like crazy with the late unfortunately the late Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones, wonderful movie by Drake dramas, who he also admitted not having a script basically just an outline and all of the dialogue being improvised by This amazing, do amazing young actors. And Jennifer Lawrence is in that movie as well. So check that one out. The one I love is also another one by Mark duplass, who's an actor with a Elisabeth moss. And it's directed by Charlie McDowell. Another great movie to check out to see what it's like when you don't have dialogue and you kind of just go with it. Another really surprising one was a movie called Blue Valentine, which is from a few years back with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, they both had been attached to the project between seven and one was seven years when was five years. So they had a really good idea about the story. They shot it chronologically, and they both kind of, you know, Williams and Goslin both spent about a month living together. Before the film kind of got off the ground, the director and the writer Derek, cyan, cyan friends, if Please forgive me, but he wrote over 60 drafts of the movie and then completely threw all of the drafts away and let them go off and the result was an extremely powerful movie, about two people falling in and out of love. So that one definitely check out as well. The Academy Award nominated American Hustle by David O. Russell, had a very clear idea he had a plot he had a script, but he just let the actors go sometimes because as he said he was much more interested in character than he was in plot. And he just kind of went off so that movie heavily improvised as well again with the structure. Veera Drake the 2006 movie by the legendary Mike Lee, Mike Lee is known for his method of working improv improv basically is he will spend four months rehearsing the movie with his actors and writing down the rehearsals which are all improvised. So the dialogue is very, very natural, very good. And he just kind of does it that way. And he actually won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Veera Drake, which was funny he actually just sent the script in but it wasn't really the script of the movie. It was kind of like the script was really the script was the movie The movie was the screenplay. And then the the father of all of this before Curb Your Enthusiasm before all these other movies and TV shows that kind of went through this style. There was the legendary john Cassavetes. JOHN Cassavetes is the godfather of independent film. If you guys have not heard of who john Cassavetes is, please go to the show notes and click on the links that I leave you. You need to know who john Cassavetes is. his very first movie was called shadows. And at the end of the movie, you can read the film that you've just seen was improvised. He wrote dozens of movies and partly self financed many of them when people were not self financing feature films. It was not as easy as it is today. And it's still hard to shoot film still have to edit on flatbed. It was a whole other world. And he was doing that. And his his methods were adopted by many of the people that we just talked about. So john Cassavetes is kind of the godfather of all this kind of stuff. So I hope you guys got a little bit of an idea about what it really takes to make a good movie. And sometimes it doesn't need a screenplay. And I know that sacrilege, I know that's Oh my god, how can he say that? All we're ever taught is how important the screenplay is. What's important is the story guys is the story. And the words that the actors say the characters say, don't have to come from the writer many times. And I know I look, I'm a writer, I understand. And I like having the actors read my, my, my words, but at the end of the day, guys, there's so many obstacles in front of us to be filmmakers, so many obstacles to get our stories out there. If we can remove one big one, which is the screenplay and again, I'm not saying you don't need a structure, you need a story, you need an outline, you have to understand all the elements of storytelling, but the screenplay itself, the dialogue can be improvised by good actors, lean on them, let them work with you. And I guarantee you, they're gonna have so much fun, and that fun is going to come right into the screen. It's not gonna sound stilted. It's not gonna sound like oh my god, I have to do it this way. This is just one of million methods on making a movie, but I'm just wanting to kind of put a spotlight on it because it's something that I've recently discovered in the last year, and now have been employing it myself. And the freedom that I feel is amazing. And I want you guys, you know, if you have a great screenplay, and that's not a problem, then go off and make your movie, but I'm tired of all of these, these roadblocks that get thrown in front of us as filmmakers to get the movie made. If you don't have the right camera. If you don't have the right Do you have you know, the right actors, if you don't have the right distribution, if you don't have the right genre, you know, all this kind of crap that's thrown in front of you. And a lot of it's thrown by ourselves, we're actually throwing the obstacles in front of us ourselves. That's exactly what happened to me. But what I found that by doing it this way, oh my god, it's so freeing. I can't explain. I can't say that enough. It is like a breath of fresh air. And the actors that I've worked with so far shooting, this is mag is they are so happy. They are so energetic on set, they go the extra mile, they're having so much fun. And they actually told me after we're done, we're like, oh, my God, this has been like, been so much fun. I'm so happy, please let me know when we could do this again. So it's, it's really, really, really powerful guy. So definitely, think about it, study it, and take a look at the movies that are out there in the show notes. Alright, because I think that's what I did. I watched probably around 50 to 100 of these kinds of movies, and was shocked at how many there are, because it's not something you hear about very often all the movies all improvised. It's not something that people talk about as much like Iron Man, for God's sakes. But, but anyway, it's something that I wanted to bring a spotlight to you guys. So I hope this helps you guys move a little closer to getting your dream of making a feature film, and making it into a reality. One thing I really want to do guys is strip down all of these preconceived notions of what you absolutely need to make a good movie. There are a million ways to crack that egg. And I hope my humble hope is that my journey with this as Meg will help inspire other filmmakers, other artists, to not allow what everybody else says that has to be you have to do this, you have to do that. And all the crap that they sell you in film school, that you can go off and do it on your own. You don't need a million things you don't need a 50 man crew again for the kind of stories that I'm trying to tell. But you cater the story you're trying to tell to what you're capable of having. And the screenplay is always been one of the biggest obstacles in my way and taking that off of my plate in a sense, and just allowing me to work on story structure plot character has been nothing but a revelation. So I hope I can pass that on to you guys. Oh, and before I forget, there is another kind of sponsor that we have for this show. Another course that I think any writer listening to this will be very, very interested in the masterclass with Aaron Sorkin Academy Award winning Aaron Sorkin of the social network and Steve Jobs in west wing and newsroom and so on. Head over to indie film hustle, calm forward slash Sorkin, s o r k i n to get early access to this amazing course. And if you are interested in checking out the indie film syndicate, which is over 40 hours of online courses, adding new content all the time have a full the entire library of the indie film, hustle podcast at your fingertips as well. All of that for a really reasonable price that is going to be limited time so right now it's at $17 a month or $185 a year and I will be coming out with a limited very limited time lifetime price. Anybody who wants that do a lifetime membership for it. But indie film syndicate.com check it out and it's a 30 day money back guarantee guys and it really helps indie film hustle out a lot helps us finance This is Meg and keeping this all this great content going for you guys because that's why I'm here here to provide value to you guys and help you guys make your movie and hopefully by me making my movie I can help and share that information with you guys. So thank you again for all the support and well wishes and the emails I keep getting all these wonderful emails from everywhere around the world about this is mag and also about the syndicate and also about indie film hustle so thanks again so so much guys. Again if you want to go to the show notes at indie film, hustle, calm forward slash zero 85 Now we are on 15 days left so we're halfway through. This is Meg so please head over to this as mag comm check out how we've built out our crowdfunding campaign, our video and our incentives and I really do need your help guys. So thisismeg.com. Keep that hustle going keep that dream alive. And I'll talk to you guys soon.

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